Firefighter lauded for life-saving evacuation before Portland explosion

After a gas leak explosion Wednesday, leveled a historic building in Portland, Ore. But city officials are commending an injured firefighter for "single-handedly" saving a number of lives.

Dave Killen/ The Oregonian/ AP
Firefighters hose down an area after a gas explosion on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016, in Portland, Ore. A powerful natural gas explosion that neighbors said felt like an earthquake rocked a busy shopping district and started a fire that sent a huge plume of smoke over the heart of the city.

City officials commended a firefighter Thursday for successfully evacuating a historic Portland, Ore., building minutes before it was leveled by a massive explosion that blew out windows in nearby structures and sent smoke billowing into the sky.

Three firefighters, two police officers, and three civilians were injured in the blast when a gas leak ignited, but no one was killed, thanks to quick-thinking first responders who pulled a fire alarm and emptied the building just in time.

Portland Fire Chief Mike Myers said one firefighter in particular, Lt. Peter St. John, deserves credit for "single-handedly" making several critical decisions under pressure.

"That man saved the lives of a lot of people today and a lot of firefighters," Chief Myers said, according to the Associated Press. "He had very good instincts today. He showed good judgment."

Lieutenant St. John, who sustained the most serious injury, was upbeat Thursday following surgery for a broken leg, Portland Fire & Rescue Lt. Rich Chatman said.

"It's a miracle no one was killed," Mayor Charlie Hales said, as Portland Patch reported.

Two police officers who were recovering from "concussive-type" injuries also deserve credit, police Sgt. Pete Simpson said.

"I'm told they had to be basically pulled from here to go to the hospital. They did not want to leave their post," Sergeant Simpson said. "They were here to help out and do whatever they could."

construction crew working in the area reported 43 minutes before the blast that its workers had nicked a three-quarter-inch natural gas line outside the building, sending flammable fumes inside, Lieutenant Chatman said. What ignited the explosion, which occurred at 9:38 a.m. Wednesday, before many businesses in the area had opened, remains unknown.

The explosion, which officials described as two separate blasts less than 20 seconds apart, demolished a 110-year-old building that housed Portland Bagelworks and other businesses in the NW 23rd Street shopping district. Nicknamed "Trendy Third," the area is packed with street-level boutique shops and restaurants, with luxury apartments above. 

Businesses several blocks away reported that their doors flew open from the force of the blast, and people as far as 11 streets away reported feeling rattled.

Bagel shop owner Rik Bartel said that Wednesday had been payday for his 13 employees, so he hopes to be permitted back into the store soon to make payroll for his staff.

"We spent yesterday together just supporting each other, crying on each other's shoulder," Mr. Bartel, a former lumber mill employee who opened the shop in 2012, told The Oregonian on Thursday. He said he's looking for temporary equipment to keep his catering business operational while he sorts through the wreckage.

"Our team of bagel and sandwich makers are left with no source of income. No way to pay their bills," Bartel wrote on a GoFundMe page he launched. "Yes, there was insurance. But much of the equipment came with the building. And without the equipment, we can't do business."

Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.

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